Belle Starr

Myra Maybelle Shirley Reed Starr (February 5, 1848 – February 3, 1889), better known as Belle Starr, was a notorious American outlaw.[1]

Belle Starr
Studio portrait of Belle Starr, "Queen of the Oklahoma Outlaws"
Myra Maybelle Shirley

(1848-02-05)February 5, 1848
DiedFebruary 3, 1889(1889-02-03) (aged 40)
Cause of deathGunshot wounds
NationalityUnited States/Confederate States
Criminal chargeHorse theft
Spouse(s)Sam Starr
James C. Reed
Jim July Starr
ChildrenPearl Starr
Rosie Reed
Eddie Reed

Belle associated with the James–Younger Gang and other outlaws. She was convicted of horse theft in 1883. She was fatally shot in 1889 in a case that is still officially unsolved. Her story was popularized by Richard K. Fox—editor and publisher of the National Police Gazette—and she later became a popular character in television and films.

Early life

Belle Starr was born Myra Maybelle Shirley on her father's farm near Carthage, Missouri, on February 5, 1848. Most of her family members called her May. Her father, John Shirley, prospered raising wheat, corn, hogs and horses, though he was considered to be the "black sheep" of a well-to-do Virginia family which had moved west to Indiana, where he married and divorced twice.[2] Her mother, Elizabeth "Eliza" Hatfield Shirley, was John Shirley's third wife and a distant relative to the Hatfields of the famous family feud.[3] In the 1860s, Belle's father sold the farm and moved the family to Carthage, where he bought an inn, livery stable and blacksmith shop on the town square.

May Shirley received a classical education and learned piano, while graduating from Missouri's Carthage Female Academy, a private institution that her father had helped to found.[4]

During the Civil War

After a Union attack on Carthage in 1864, the Shirleys moved to Scyene, Texas. According to legend, it was at Scyene that the Shirleys became associated with a number of Missouri-born criminals, including Jesse James and the Younger brothers. In fact, she knew the Youngers and the James boys because she had grown up with them in Missouri. Her brother, John A.M. "Bud" Shirley, was called Captain Shirley by local Confederate sympathizers. He does not appear on any list of Quantrill's Raiders, but rode with a group who were called partisans by some and bushwhackers by Union sympathizers. Bud Shirley was killed in 1864 in Sarcoxie, Missouri while he and another scout were eating at the home of a Confederate sympathizer. Union troops surrounded the house, and when Bud attempted to escape, he was shot and killed.[5]

After the Civil War

Following the war, the Reed family also moved to Scyene and May Shirley married Jim Reed in 1866,[6] after having had a crush on him as a teen.[7] Two years later, she gave birth to her first child, Rosie Lee (nicknamed Pearl).[7] Belle always harbored a strong sense of style, which fed into her later legend. A crack shot, she used to ride sidesaddle while dressed in a black velvet riding habit and a plumed hat, carrying two pistols, with cartridge belts across her hips.[4] Reed turned to crime and was wanted for murder in Arkansas, which caused the family to move to California, where their second child, James Edwin (Eddie), was born in 1871.

Later returning to Texas, Reed was involved with several criminal gangs. While Reed initially tried his hand at farming, he would grow restless and fell in with bad company—the Starr clan, a Cherokee Indian family notorious for whiskey, cattle, and horse thievery in the Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), as well as his wife's old friends the James and Younger gangs. In April 1874, despite a lack of any evidence, a warrant was issued for her arrest for a stagecoach robbery by her husband and others. Reed was killed in August of that year in Paris, Texas, where he had settled down with his family.

Marriage to Sam Starr

Allegedly, Belle was briefly married for three weeks to Charles Younger, uncle of Cole Younger in 1878, but this is not substantiated by any evidence. There are numerous claims that Belle's daughter Pearl Reed was actually Pearl Younger, but in Cole Younger's autobiography (quoted in Glen Shirley's "Belle Starr and her times"), he discounted that as rubbish and stated what he knew truly of Belle.

In 1880, she married a Cherokee man named Sam Starr and settled with the Starr family in the Indian Territory. There, she learned ways of organizing, planning and fencing for the rustlers, horse thieves and bootleggers, as well as harboring them from the law. Belle's illegal enterprises proved lucrative enough for her to employ bribery to free her cohorts from the law whenever they were caught.

In 1883, Belle and Sam were arrested by Bass Reeves, charged with horse theft and tried before "The Hanging Judge" Isaac Parker in Fort Smith, Arkansas; the prosecutor was United States Attorney W.H.H. Clayton. She was found guilty and served nine months at the Detroit House of Corrections in Detroit, Michigan. Belle proved to be a model prisoner, and during her time in jail, she won the respect of the prison matron. In contrast, Sam was incorrigible and assigned to hard labor.

In 1886, she eluded conviction on another theft charge, but on December 17, Sam Starr was involved in a gunfight with Officer Frank West.[8] Both men were killed, and Belle's life as an outlaw queen—and what had been the happiest relationship of her life—abruptly ended with her husband's death.

Unsolved murder

For the last two-plus years of her life, gossips and scandal sheets linked her to a series of men with colorful names, including Jack Spaniard, Jim French and Blue Duck, after which, in order to keep her residence on Indian land, she married a relative of Sam Starr, Jim July Starr, who was some 15 years younger than she was.

On February 3, 1889, two days before her 41st birthday, she was killed. She was riding home from a neighbor's house in Eufaula, Oklahoma when she was ambushed. After she fell off her horse, she was shot again to make sure she was dead. Her death resulted from shotgun wounds to the back and neck and in the shoulder and face. Legend says she was shot with her own double barrel shotgun.[4]

According to Frank "Pistol Pete" Eaton, her death was due to different circumstances. She had been attending a dance. Frank Eaton had been the last person to dance with Belle Starr when Edgar Watson, clearly intoxicated, had asked to dance with her. When Belle Starr declined, he later followed her. When on the way home, she stopped to give her horse a drink at a creek, he shot and killed her. According to Frank Eaton, Watson was tried, convicted and executed by hanging for the murder.

However, another story says that there were no witnesses and that no one ever was convicted of the murder. Suspects with apparent motive included her new husband and both of her children as well as Edgar J. Watson, one of her sharecroppers because he was afraid she was going to turn him in to the authorities as an escaped murderer from Florida with a price on his head. Watson, who was killed in 1910, was tried for her murder, but was acquitted, and the ambush has entered Western lore as "unsolved".

One source suggests her son, whom she had allegedly beaten for mistreating her horse, may have been her killer.[9]

Story becomes popularized

Although an obscure figure outside Texas throughout most of her life, Belle's story was picked up by the dime novel and National Police Gazette publisher Richard K. Fox, who made her name famous with his novel Bella Starr, the Bandit Queen, or the Female Jesse James, published in 1889 (the year of her murder). This novel still is cited as a historical reference. It was the first of many popular stories that used her name.


Eddie Reed, Belle's son, was convicted of horse theft and receiving stolen property in July 1889. Judge Parker sent him to prison in Columbus, Ohio. Rosie Reed, Belle's daughter, also known as Pearl Starr, became a prostitute to raise funds for Eddie's release. She eventually obtained a presidential pardon in 1893. Eddie became a deputy in Fort Smith and[10] killed two outlaw brothers named Crittenden in 1895,[11][12] and was himself killed in a saloon in Claremore, Oklahoma on December 14, 1896.[10][12][13][14]

Pearl operated several bordellos in Van Buren and Fort Smith, Arkansas, from the 1890s to World War I.

See also

Appearances in the arts

Movies and television series

Literature and music

  • "Belle Starr in Velvet" is a book by Kenneth D. Scott.
  • Woody Guthrie wrote a song titled "Belle Starr."[17]
  • Emmylou Harris and Mark Knopfler's 2006 collaboration All the Roadrunning features a track titled "Belle Starr," written by Harris.[18]
  • Sissy Spacek wrote the song "Some Small Crime" about Starr and sang it with Levon Helm on The Midnight Special in 1980.[19]
  • The 'ghost of Belle Starr' is mentioned in "Tombstone Blues" on Bob Dylan's album Highway 61 Revisited (1965). Belle Starr is mentioned by Dylan in the lyrics of "Seeing The Real You at Last" on the album Empire Burlesque (1985).
  • Belle Starr (1979) was the first novel of American author and editor Speer Morgan.
  • The Legend of Belle Starr (1979) was a historical novel by Stoney Hardcastle.
  • The unsolved murder of Belle Starr is the basis for the Douglas C. Jones novel The Search for Temperance Moon (1991). A character based on Pearl Starr, Belle's daughter, is featured as a bordello owner in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
  • Pulp western author J.T. Edson featured Belle Starr in several of his Floating Outfit series of novels as the love interest of Mark Counter, one of the three lead protagonists in the series. Edson's novel Guns in the Night features Belle Starr's being murdered when pregnant with Mark Counter's child after which the Floating Outfit team to catch her murderer.
  • One of the more distinctive adaptations of the legend of Belle Starr was made by the Japanese manga artist Akihiro Ito, who in 1993 created a manga known as Belle Starr Bandits, loosely based on historical figures, facts and events. She had an appearance in the manga Gun Blaze West from Nobuhiro Watsuki, as one of J.J.'s (Jesse James) gang members. ISBN 3-89885-759-X
  • Belle Starr appeared as a caricature in the 1995 Belle Starr album of the Lucky Luke comics series, illustrated by Morris and written by Xavier Fauche.
  • The 2009 historical novel The Branch and the Scaffold by Loren D. Estleman deals in part with Belle Starr's life in the Indian Nations as her path crossed that of Judge Isaac Parker.
  • Peter Mattheissen's historical fiction (The Killing of Mr. Watson Trilogy and now Shadow Country) includes the story of E.J. Watson's murdering Belle Starr.
  • American rock band Rival Sons composed a song titled "Belle Starr" for their album Great Western Valkyrie.
  • American country singer Michael Martin Murphey sings about Belle Starr's life in a song titled "Belle Star" on his album Cowboy Songs III: Rhymes of the Renegades.
  • The Band Rival Sons recorded the song "Belle Starr" as the eighth song on their 2014 album, "Great Western Valkyrie"


  1. "Truth Dims the Legend of Outlaw Queen Belle Starr". Los Angeles Times. February 17, 2002. Retrieved November 19, 2019.
  2. Shirley 1982, p. 31–65.
  3. Shirley 1982, p. 34.
  4. Rasmussen, Cecilia (February 17, 2002). "L.A. Then and Now: Truth Dims the Legend of Outlaw Queen Belle Starr". Los Angeles Times. Archived from the original on March 6, 2016. Retrieved January 23, 2013.
  5. Janet Ariciu (February 1, 2013). "Janet Ariciu family Bush". RootsWeb – an community. Retrieved February 13, 2013.
  6. Hunkel, Ed; Marshall Trimble (August 12, 2014). "Where were Belle Starr and Jim Reed married, and did Frank and Jesse James attend the wedding?". True West Magazine. Muldrow, Oklahoma. Retrieved May 16, 2018.
  7. Meier, Allison (April 3, 2013). "Belle Starr the Bandit Queen: How a Southern Girl Became a Legendary Western Outlaw". Atlas Obscura. Retrieved May 16, 2018.
  8. "Police Officer Frank West, United States Department of the Interior - Bureau of Indian Affairs - Division of Law Enforcement, U.S. Government". Officer Down Memorial Page. Retrieved January 23, 2013.
  9. "FrontierTimes - Outlaws - Belle Starr".
  10. "Indian chieftain. (Vinita, Indian Territory [Okla.]) 1882-1902, December 17, 1896, Image 2".
  11. "The Wichita daily eagle. (Wichita, Kan.) 1890-1906, December 16, 1896, Page 6, Image 6".
  12. "Kansas City daily journal. (Kansas City, Mo.) 1892-1897, December 16, 1896, Page 2, Image 2".
  13. "The San Francisco call. (San Francisco [Calif.]) 1895-1913, December 16, 1896, Page 3, Image 3".
  14. "The Wichita daily eagle. (Wichita, Kan.) 1890-1906, December 16, 1896, Page 6, Image 6".
  15. "Stories of the Century: "Belle Starr", January 23, 1954". Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved September 16, 2012.
  16. "A Bullet for the D.A, Death Valley Days, November 13, 1961". Internet Movie Data Base. Retrieved February 25, 2014.
  17. "Belle Starr lyrics by Woody Guthrie".
  18. "Belle Starr". AllMusic.
  19. waisaidai (October 10, 2011), Sissy Spacek & Levon Helm-Some Small Crime, retrieved April 1, 2018

Further reading

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